All the issues have been settled in the Asian Champions League’s western zone. Eight teams have progressed to the knockout stages — including three out of four Saudi representatives — which will start early next year due to the 2022 World Cup in November and December.
The eliminated 12 have to wait until September 2023 to try again as the tournament switches to an Autumn-Spring schedule that matches the European version. Below are five things we have learnt from the latest action.
1. Al-Taawoun defensive woes prove costly
Scoring four goals but still losing against a team that has already been eliminated does not look good, and while Al-Taawoun’s 5-4 defeat against Pakhtakor may have been thrilling for the neutral, it will not have gone down well with the club’s fans. A win against the Uzbekistan team would have kept the Buraidah club’s hopes alive and while they fought well, their problems at the back, exacerbated by fatigue and mistakes, came back to bite them.
Al-Taawoun have had issues in conceding late goals all through the group stage. The two defeats against Pakhtakor came with winners in the 83rd and 86th minutes. The loss to Al-Duhail came courtesy of a strike in the 88th minute. There is no disgrace for a team, which is fighting against relegation at home, failing to progress through a tough group to the knockout stages of a major continental championship but Al-Taawoun had done the hard work with two wins in the opening three games. Taking one point from the last three ended their chances. Conceding 12 goals is not going to see you through.
2. Al-Faisaly give Saudi Arabia three in the second round
Al-Faisaly did not kick a ball on Tuesday evening but still booked their place in the next stage. For a team that has been fighting against relegation at home, this is a magnificent achievement. Nobody will mind that other results went in their favor on Tuesday to leave the men from Dammam secure in their place even if they finish second. They will still want to hang on to their top spot however. A win against the already eliminated Al-Sadd will do just that on Wednesday and would mean that Saudi Arabia have three group winners in the western zone.
It leaves head coach Marinos Ouzounidis with something of a dilemma. Does he pick his strongest team and try to finish in first place? Or does he rest his best players, who are tired after a Champions League game every three or four days, for the relegation battles to come at home? He may be advised to do the latter. The important work has been done, Al-Faisaly are through and now the focus must be on staying in the top tier.
3. Al-Shabab have been the best
Unless Al-Hilal score at least nine goals in their final game against Al-Rayyan of Qatar then Al-Shabab will have the best record in the western zone and almost certainly the tournament as a whole. It all ended with a 2-0 win over Al-Jazira to put the Riyadh team onto 16 points, a massive gap of nine over Mumbai City in second.
An amazing 18 goals have been scored and just one conceded. The sight of John Mary scoring will be a welcome one for fans as the Cameroonian striker missed a whole host of chances in his other appearance in the tournament, the only one in which Al-Shabab did not win. He also missed some gilt-edged opportunities in this game before opening the scoring midway through the second-half.
Al-Shabab went on to win comfortably — a great goal from Paulinho sealed the victory late on — to end what has been a perfect group stage. They now return home full of confidence and with the knowledge that they can mix it with the best in Asia.
4. Al-Duhail pose biggest threat to Saudi challenge
Al-Hilal and Al-Shabab have been the standouts of the group stage but there is one more: Al-Duhail. The Qatari team were taken over by Hernan Crespo in March and despite losing the first game of Group D to Al-Taawoun, they bounced back to win the next five and finish in first by some distance.
It ended with a 5-2 win over Sepahan of Iran. The team have some impressive firepower with the prolific Kenyan Michael Olunga, Nam Tae-hee of South Korea and Edmilson of Belgium. The team’s weakness is obviously at the back. Al-Hilal and Al-Shabab have conceded four goals between them in the group stage so far but Al-Duhail’s backline has been breached on no less than nine occasions. On their day however, the Qataris can beat anyone and will be looking forward to the knockout stages when they eventually kick off.
5. India dash Iraq’s dreams
Going into the final game, Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya would have given themselves and Iraq a great chance of a first-ever appearance in the knockout stages if they had defeated Mumbai City. Instead, they lost 1-0 to the Indians.
The Airmen will be kicking themselves at missing this opportunity. Mumbai started brightly and created a number of opportunities before taking the lead on the half hour. For much of the rest of the match however, the Iraqi team pushed forward but were just unable to put one of their numerous chances away.
It was an entertaining match, however, and both teams will take positives out of the tournament. Al-Shabab were clearly on a different level but the clubs from India and Iraq were competitive. Mumbai became the first team from their country to win a Champions League game. They ended up winning two and finished second in their group — a fine achievement. Al-Quwa Al-Jawiya will be happy at being in the mix right until the end but will wonder if they could have gone further.